Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Midnight's Children | Book 3, Midnight | Summary

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Summary

This chapter opens with Saleem Sinai's struggle, his wish to continue his story and his unwillingness to relive the horrors and sadness of the Emergency.

To Parvati-the-witch's objections—as well as Padma's—Saleem created a correspondence between little Aadam Sinai's deathly illness and Saleem's childhood bout with typhoid. The logic of the connection was based in Saleem's sense that his son shares with him an unbreakable and intimate connection to history. Thus, he believes, there would be no cure for Aadam's affliction until the Emergency ended. When Parvati (now known as Laylah) was advised that the silent infant needed to speak in order to be cured, she served him a potion that should do the trick. Instead, the boy, steadfast in his silence, turned green and then saffron—the colors of the Indian flag—with the effort to remain silent. Thus, his parents learned that he cannot be coerced under any circumstances. He is a child of history.

While Laylah suffered from Saleem's lack of sexual attention to her, Saleem, sniffing out the rottenness that pervaded the capital, experienced a cold fear. He sniffed out Shiva's presence and knew that the danger lay in a "pair of grasping, choking knees."

Saleem, thinking of the differences between himself and his son, came to a conclusion about identity as a matter of time and place. "We, the children of Independence, rushed wildly and too fast into our future ... Emergency-born," Aadam's generation will be "more cautious, biding his time; but when he acts, he will be impossible to resist."

The time of the Emergency brought great peril, which Saleem had already dreamed. He awoke to find troops prepared to raze the magicians' slum and sterilize its residents. Picture Singh led the resistance and a riot ensued. The people were not going to take their "improvement" without a fight.

The slum was razed, and although Picture was not captured, Laylah was killed in the melee. Saleem believed that the razing of the slum and the capture of citizens for sterilization were merely covers for his capture by Shiva. According to his strange logic, responsibility for the destruction of the ghetto was his. His spittoon was lost when he was captured. He was taken to Benares, "the shrine to Shiva-the-God," by "hero-Shiva."

Saleem was tortured in a small room at the Widows' Hostel, a palatial building, once the residence of a maharajah. The hostel had been taken over by the state to house India's widows. Once sati, the ancient practice in which the widow threw herself on her dead husband's funeral pyre, had been outlawed, the mansion was repurposed as a home for bereaved wives. The state used the building for other purposes as well.

Saleem gave up the names of the Midnight Children's Conference, and at the hostel he suffered the sounds of their torture and confessions. He also learned that the midnight children were only a small part of the quarter million Indians who were detained during the Emergency.

While imprisoned, Saleem wrote a letter of apology to the children of the defunct conference. His letter included news of Parvati's death and the vanishing of many opponents of the prime minister. He talked about preferring privacy to politics and went on to suggest a political solution. He named the Midnight Party as the party of resistance. He recognized torture could be seen as a means of bringing people together, and he urged solidarity. He revealed that "nail-tearing and starvation" yielded optimism and hope. Most shocking of the abuses of state was the policy of sterilization in which vasectomies and hysterectomies were performed across the population.

Saleem does not spare the gory details, claiming that the excised body parts, removed as a population control measure, were cooked up as a curry and fed to the "pie-dogs" of the city. The victims were those that remained of the original 1,001 of the Midnight Children's Conference. In March 1977 Saleem and the others were released and learned that a general election had been called. Shiva, who had been detained, was assassinated in prison by Roshanara Shetty, one of his early victims. Shiva had never learned that he had been switched at birth.

Saleem made his way back to Delhi and searched for the remnants of the magicians' ghetto. He found them in the far western reaches of the city and was welcomed home by Picture Singh, who has with him a boy of around 21 months with "ears of elephants ... eyes ... wide as saucers and [a] face ... as serious as the grave."

Analysis

Saleem, tested by torture and the guilt he feels in implicating others, gains a sense of life's purpose. He has found what has eluded him in his search for meaning. He also finds that his mentor, the communist, Picture Singh, survived and protected the baby, Aadam Sinai. Aadam, a child of the midnight of the Emergency, holds promise for a life of purpose, likely a life of political activism in the reborn state.

Saleem's troubles reproduce the violence of the state in the throes of rebirth. There is nothing subtle about Saleem's account. He has loosened the chains of his connection to history. The Gandhis, Indira and her son Sanjay, had instituted reforms that modernized India, and had done so by all means available to them. These changes and their means are the white and black that Saleem named at the chapter's opening.

India's struggle is Saleem's, and in the end he is freed to have an ordinary life. Saleem's life lessons begin with the lessons of history, inescapable with respect to the potential of an individual life. The historical lesson is an integral part of individual development, and the health of the individual—and individuality—depends upon the health of the state. In both cases suffering and responsiveness to change would seem to be the catalysts for an independent life in a time and place in which ordinary freedoms are possible.

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